SM: Did you do SysOpt.com full time or was it just on the side?
SW: I was doing it on the side. When I was in high school I worked on it after school as a hobby. When it started to pass the $30K, $40K, and $60K a year mark, I started to think there could be something good going on. I was really still interested in aviation. I had this great Internet thing going on, but I wanted to be an aviation engineer. I went to Texas A&M when I was 17 to be an aerospace engineer.
I started studying engineering and ran the business, which was earning more than $100K, on the side. I was putting a lot of effort into the business. It was taking a lot of my time, and I was faced with tough classes like calculus that were not simple for me and did not come naturally. By my sophomore year I decided to leave school for a while and just focus on the business. That was during the early days of the craziness.
I moved to Portland, Oregon because I had a friend there I had done some business with. My friend was an entrepreneur like me, and we had done some work together. I had been chatting with him and he invited me up to do some windsurfing. I left school – I was never a big school person, I was always focused on the business stuff. I went to the guidance counselors, who asked me if I was really sure that I wanted to do that. I told them I was positive.
SM: Did you tell the guidance counselors how much money you were making?
SW: No, but they would not have believed it. They would have thought I was dealing drugs!
SM: The $100,000 a year you were making at the time all came via advertising?
SW: Yes. Initially I reached out to companies I thought would be a good fit. There was an early ad network called Commonwealth which would stick their code on your site and pay you a CPM. After 1997 and 1998 they gave a decent payout. I also partnered with a guy in Canada who made a diagnostic card that people could use to troubleshoot their computers. I sold that through the site as well, which accounted for part of the revenue. I would also seek out individual companies to stick banner ads on the site.
Somewhere in there I launched ResellerRatings.com. It was part of SysOpt at first, but eventually it went on its own. It was my selfish way of trying to find online retailers that I could trust. There was nothing like that at the time. There was no BizRate or ratings source. I never knew if I could trust an online store. It was a place for people to write and read reviews, and for people to leave their opinions. At first it did not earn any money, a couple of thousand dollars a year from merchant ads. ResellerRatings and SysOpt both grew, and in 1999 I started getting into the sellout craze.